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The Complex 'Tapestry' of Michelle Obama's Ancestry

Jul 1, 2012
Originally published on July 2, 2012 10:17 am

When Michelle Obama's great-great-great grandmother was 8 years old, her life underwent a dramatic change.

Melvinia Shields was a slave who grew up at a South Carolina estate with a relatively large community of slaves she knew well. But then she was moved to a small farm in northern Georgia where she was one of only three slaves; most white people in the area didn't own any.

"What's fascinating about Michelle Obama's family and her ancestors is that it shows us the breadth and depth of the experience of African-Americans during that time," says Rachel Swarns, a reporter for The New York Times.

Swarns, who traced Obama's family tree back generations, has written a book about it, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial ancestors of Michelle Obama.

She finds that the first lady has a complex lineage. Swarns says Melvinia later had a baby fathered by a white man, and today Obama has white relatives living all across the South.

Swarns discussed that revelation, as well as how she traced Obama's family tree and met some of the first lady's white relatives, with Laura Sullivan, host weekends on All Things Considered.


Interview Highlights

On who fathered Melvinia Shields' child

"In the end, it looked like it was most likely the son of her owner ... . This was a man by the name of Charles Marion Shields, who watched Melvinia grow up and may have played with her when they were younger as children. One of the painful parts of this story is that we don't know what their relationship was like, and even the word 'relationship' is a hard one when you talk about what happened between slaves and their masters and their masters' children. Rape was a common part of life there."

On researching the family tree

"It's very hard when you're trying to do research in the period during slavery when you're talking about African-Americans because there isn't a lot there. People say, 'What about letters and journals and diaries?' But slaves were barred from reading and writing, and so there are very few of those. Even the census, which is a fabulous resource for families trying to dig into their past, didn't track enslaved African-Americans by name. It wasn't until after emancipation that those enslaved people suddenly appear in the census, so it's not easy at all."

On meeting Michelle Obama's white relatives

"People had mixed emotions, as you might imagine. On the one hand, there's this: 'Wow, really? I might be related to the first lady? That's pretty amazing.' Then there's this knowledge that this connection dated back to such a painful period of our history, and you can imagine what it might be like if someone were to knock on your door and say, 'Hi, I think your family owned the first lady's family.'

On why Michelle Obama's grandfather Purnell Shields kept his white ancestry secret

"This kind of silence went across many generations. There were so many people I spoke to who said when I asked about slavery or when I tried to find out more about mixed ancestry, people simply didn't want to talk about it. (I found) a sense of wanting to distance oneself from a period that was really painful and really difficult, and in some ways to raise children who were unburdened by that period. In some ways, that was probably a gift. But it made it much harder to find out really what happened in the past."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Laura Sullivan in for Guy Raz.

From the moment Barack Obama became a presidential candidate, there's been a focus, even an obsession, on his family tree. It makes sense, the branches spread from Hawaii to Indonesia. But little is known about his wife's family tree until now. New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns traces Michelle Obama's roots back generations in a new book called "American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama."

When we spoke, I asked her to begin by describing Michelle Obama's great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields, an enslaved young girl who had a baby fathered by a white man.

RACHE SWARNS: Melvinia was about 8 years old when she was sent from the place that she knew, to a farm in northern Georgia. And she left an estate owned by a very wealthy man with a relatively large community of slaves for that place - about 20-odd. And she moved to the rough up country of Georgia where she was one of only three slaves. And in a place where the vast majority of white people did not own slaves, it was a dramatic change for her.

SULLIVAN: So this wasn't like a Jefferson kind of situation, where it was a very wealthy, white mansion plantation farm owner.

SWARNS: Nothing like that. And what's fascinating about Michelle Obama's family and her ancestors is that it shows us the breadths of the experience of African-Americans during that time. We think of slavery and we think of Monticello, of the grand manor. We think of "Gone With The Wind," hundreds of slaves; the clink of silver and bustling halls and all of that. But really, most slaves didn't live in places like that. And Melvinia, where she ended up was a community where if you owned slaves at all, you worked alongside them in the fields.

SULLIVAN: Was her white owner the father of her child?

SWARNS: In the end, it looked like it was most likely the son of her owner who fathered her son. This was a man by the name of Charles Marion Shields, who watched Melvinia grow up, may have played with her when they were younger as children. And one of the painful parts of this story is we don't know what their relationship was like. And even the word relationship is a hard one when you talk about what happened between slaves and their masters and their masters' children. Rape was a common part of life there.

SULLIVAN: Hmm. You discovered that the first lady has white relatives all across the South.

SWARNS: That's right. They're in Georgia. They're in South Carolina. They're in Alabama and Texas, living, breathing distant cousins who are now coming to terms with this connection.

SULLIVAN: What kind of research were you doing?

SWARNS: It's very hard when you're trying to do research in the period during slavery when you're talking about African-Americans because there isn't a lot there. People say, well, what about letters and journals and diaries? But slaves were barred from reading and writing, and so there are very, very few of those. And even the census, which is a fabulous resource for families trying to dig into their past, the census didn't track enslaved African-Americans by name. It wasn't until after emancipation that those enslaved people suddenly appear in the census. So it's not easy at all.

SULLIVAN: Hmm. When you would knock on some of the doors of the white families, what was their reaction to learning not only their connection to the first lady, but their connection to slavery?

SWARNS: People had mixed emotions, as you might imagine. On the one hand, there's this, wow, really? I might be related to the first lady? I mean, that's pretty amazing. And then there is this knowledge that this connection dated back to such a painful period of our history. And you can imagine what it might be like if someone were to knock on your door and say, hi, I think your family owned the first lady's family.

SULLIVAN: Whoa.

SWARNS: And many of these people had no idea that they had ancestors who owned slaves. The white Shields were not wealthy people. And so, these descendants - some of them had no idea. In fact, they said things like, well, I always thought the Shields never had two nickels to rub together. And, in fact, they're right. The Shields were not wealthy people. They inherited the slaves.

SULLIVAN: You write about how Michelle Obama's maternal grandfather, Pernell Shields, would pass along all of these things to his grandchildren about his love of music and barbecue and his spirit. But you say that the one thing he did not pass down was the story of his white ancestry. Why did he keep that a secret?

RACHEL SWARNS: This kind of silence went across many generations. There were so many people I spoke to who said - when I asked about slavery or when I try to find out more about our mixed ancestry, people simply didn't want to talk about it, a sense of wanting to distance oneself from a period that was really painful and really difficult and, in some ways, to raise children that were unburdened by that period.

And in some ways, that was probably a gift. But it made it much harder to find out really what happened in the past.

SULLIVAN: Rachel Swarns is the author of the new book "American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama." Rachel, thank you so much for joining us.

SWARNS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.